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Miles Kington

Art à la carte

It used to drive Conan Doyle potty. Ronald Searle couldn't stand it. I don't suppose John Cleese is very amused by it, either.

Yes, I'm talking about the way that people get indelibly associated with their early hits and can't shake off the association. The way that Conan Doyle was always linked with Sherlock Holmes. The way that Germaine Greer has been lumbered with The Female Eunuch. The way that whenever Terry Jones and Michael Palin are mentioned in print, they are always referred to as "ex-Python Jones" or "ex-Python Palin", and John Cleese is either silly walks or Basil Fawlty.

In the case of Ronald Searle, the hideous shadow that hangs over him is that of St Trinian's. On the mainland of Europe Searle is thought of as a brilliant serious artist and colourist. In his homeland he is still thought of as the creator of a bunch of heartless schoolgirls which he ceased to find funny 50 years ago and grew to loathe.

And another example of this cropped up on Radio 4's Word Of Mouth last week, when they celebrated the centenary of SJ Perelman's birth concentrating entirely on his contributions to the Marx Brothers films. Now, Perelman thought that his main achievement was the perfection of the short, polished, comic essay, of the kind that he gave The New Yorker for so many years, and which had me enslaved when I first encountered modern humour. But, yes, he did spend time in Hollywood and boy, how he hated it. Here's what he wrote about his experience with the Marx family:

"I did two films with them, which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at 10-minute intervals than ever work for those sons of bitches again."

The feelings were mutual. When working with Groucho Marx on The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, Richard Anobile kept trying to get Groucho to say something nice about Perelman. This is about as near as Groucho got.

Anobile: Did you work with Perelman on the script of Monkey Business?

Groucho: Very little, very little. In the first place, I hated the son of a bitch, and he had a head as big as my desk... He was very condescending to me and the other writers.

And there were other writers. Quite apart from Groucho himself, most of the great work on the Marx Brothers films was done by people like George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Yet you never hear them being cited as the men behind the Marx Brothers, or indeed being mentioned at all. It's always Perelman, who did so little for them, and who, according to Groucho, couldn't even write lines which were easy to say. And when the Englishman Eric Lister wrote a book about his travels with Perelman, do you know what it was called? Don't Mention the Marx Brothers: Reminiscences of SJ Perelman, that's what it was called.

And then they do a tribute to Perelman on Word of Mouth, normally such a sensible programme, and the only thing they mention is the Marx Brothers! Oh, well...

One final thought on radio. Last Saturday, the Radio Times promised that Radio 3's The Verb would feature an examination of Tony Blair's use of language in the light of Eric Blair's - George Orwell's - strictures on politicians' English. It was, mysteriously, never broadcast. Cold feet among the lawyers? I am told that it should be finally going out this Saturday. I hope so. "Don't lose your nerve!" was Greg Dyke's parting advice to the BBC.